Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Behind Her Eyes - Sarah Pinborough

Behind Her Eyes is a standalone novel from Sarah Pinborough, whose cracking “13 Minutes” we reviewed and said rather nice things about last year. It’s a well honed psychological thriller – amongst other things.

This is, at heart, a novel about people – in particular about the loves and hatreds, and about the secrets and lies which bind people together as thoroughly, or even more so, than genuine affection. At the same time, the narrative examines the way those links are shaped by, and impact upon, the people that create them.

The core focus of the text is on the series of relationships between Louise, a single mother, struggling through her day job as an assistant at a medical practice, David, the newest doctor in that practice – and Adele, David’s wife. Louise, crucially, is given to us as a point of view character, and we share in the mundane and familiar aspects of her life – a love for her son, an effort to put on a good front before her ex-husband, a desire to be both more and less than she is. Louise is familiar, or at least comfortable to walk the narrative alongside. To be sure, she has character flaws – a tendency to impulsiveness, for example – but overall, she’s an intelligent woman, shaped by circumstances to have what feels in some ways a very claustrophobic life, stuck in a rut after a divorce, caring for her son between holidays, having the odd glass of wine after dinner, and never quite able to reach out for something more.

David, the new doctor, is the one of the triad we see least – his motivations and goals cloaked from the reader. He’s a man capable of showing both infernal coolness, and great affection. It seems like there’s something haunting the man, a past not quite spoken of. He’s the bridge between Louise and Adele, his wife – and the mystery of what ties him to Adele, what strange rites bind them together, is at the crux of the mystery. David is the third party, seen from the vantage of the others, but perhaps not wholly understood. By turns he feels humane, warm and affectionate – and a distant force of nature, a force of pent up rage and potential violence. It’s to Pinborough’s credit that she makes both sides of the man feel as plausible, as likely, as the other.

The third of the triad is Adele, David’s wife, who befriends Louise. Her segments are both revealing and obfuscated, if that’s possible. Adele is sharp eyed and sharp minded, an individual with a laser like focus, and a clear affection for her husband. That said, she’s also somewhere between terrified and damned – watching her mind race, picking up threads that tie to Louise and David, linking them together and trying to shift them to her own needs. Adele is clearly damaged, dangerous, or both but damaged by whom, or dangerous to whom is another matter.

The setting feels, perhaps intentionally, claustrophobic – and largely settled around urban environs. Still, the atmosphere is sinister, if we’re not entirely sure why. There’s scenes in Louise’s cramped, slightly decrepit flat. Here’s the scent of genteel poverty, of old furniture and luxuries put off in the name of necessity – a feeling of work and honesty, laced with regrets and perhaps, just perhaps a tinge of hope. By contrast, Adele and David have a larger home, filled with unspoken accusations and a roiling tension sat under the pleasant-seeming surface. Whatever it is that keeps them together, or has driven them apart, sits over their interactions, and their home, like an oil slick on boiling water.

The plot – well, there’s surprises in every word. If we come to the story knowing nothing, then the gradual reveals on all sides, the gentle unmasking of hard truth, and the potential for appalling consequences – are all guaranteed to leave us a little wiser when we walk away from the book. It’s a slow burner, this one, but the build up is deliciously clever, each disclosure cloaking even further mysteries – leaving the reader crouched over the text in anticipation, trying to work out where the next twist is going to take us.

This is definitely worth picking up, if you’re in the mood for an incredibly well realised psychological thriller, with the odd element suggesting all may not be quite as it appears. I tore through it quickly, and I can say that it delivers on its early promise – each turn of phrase an emotional punch to the gut, each page a revelation.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Brothers In Arms - Lois McMaster Bujold

Brothers In Arms is a novel in Lois McMaster Bujold’s extensive “Vorkosigan Saga” sci-fi series. I’ve been working my way back through the series this year, and in large part, it’s been as good as I recall.

The majority of the text takes place on Earth, which hasn’t really turned up in the series before now. Rather than Compared to the exotic allure of the Cetagandan Empire in the previous volume, Earth feels at once more prosaic, more familiar – and distinctly different to the worlds we’ve visited before. This is a world of embassies, of diplomatic overtures and quiet, dignified assasinations. Here, it seems, is the place to be if you need to do some really good shopping – from living clothes to starships. Earth is an amalgamation of cultures, drawing in influences from everywhere around it. 

Admittedly, the reader is limited, largely, to shopping centres and embassy compounds – but seeing the allies and enemies of the previous books left dealing with each other across a third party is intriguing. Both Barrayarans and Cetagandans are keen to avoid a war – but can’t resist doing a bit of back-handed blackmail, violence and occasional diplomacy at the same time. There’s the feeling of a cold war conflict coursing through the setting, reminiscent of classics like The Third Man – with a fair degree of cloak and dagger antics on display (or not, as the case may be).

Miles is conflicted, perhaps more than ever. After some time spent with his mercenary troops, he’s back under the government’s thumb, trying to explain why, amongst other things, he needs quite so much money. He’s thoroughly energetic, but still caught in the desire to make something of himself, to be something – if he can work out what that is. To live up to his famous parents, to have access to power, to change the universe – these are all things that can be done by Miles as a mercenary admiral, but perhaps not as Miles Vorkosigan, Barrayaran junior officer. On the other hand, the Vorkosigan name is at the core of Miles’ self-belief – he struggles to match up to the examples he would have to renounce in order to match. It’s taking its toll here, as he sometimes drifts toweard being subtly schizophrenic, a man not entirely sure who he is, but also not certain who it is he would like to be.

He’s backed up here by the long-suffering Ivan, who is determined to avoid as much of Miles’ shenanigans as possible. Ivan remains a delightful straight man in the face of Miles’ mania –and an excellent contrast for the reader. They’re joined by the eternally competent Elli Quinn (fresh from her role in Ethan of Athos). Elli remains straightforward, honest, and with a streak of ruthlessness against her enemies. Between them, she and Ivan make unlikely but effective body-men for Miles, who uses them both unapologetically and effectively – though with a degree of affection on all sides.

They’re faced by a string of antagonists – though I’ll leave exactly who they are and what their goals are out of this review, for the sake of spoilers. That said, Bujold has pulled out the stops to provide a cool, calculating antagonist with a long term view, and a willingness to use harsh and outright lethal approaches to get what they want. There are some more sympathetic characters on this side of the line as well, and a few that seem to straddle the space between allies and enemies for Miles. Quite whom to trust, and what their end goals actually are, remains somewhat shrouded, even to the last.

On that basis, the plot rockets along rather nicely. There’s a brief lull at the start, as we’re brought up to speed and introduced to the world, but quite soon there’s what feels like a myriad of plots being juggled – and a steadily ratcheting tension, as Miles tries to work out what’s going on, and why it’s happening quite so explosively. This one is largely a slow burner, an investigation into hidden secrets – and a character study, with some top notch dialogue between Miles and his foes, which reveals quite a lot about both sides in the process.

Is it worth reading? If you’re invested in the Vorkosigan saga to this point then I’d say yes, it’s worth your time. If you’re coming to it new, there’s perhaps a little too much assumed knowledge to make for a straightforward read. It’s still a decent standalone novel, but it really should be read after the works which precede it. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The City of Ice - K.M. McKinley

The City of Ice is the second in K.M. McKinley’s “The Gates of the World” series. We reviewed the first, “The Iron Ship” a while ago. It impressed with a sprawling and imaginative geography, as well as a social setting which was, at the very least, intriguing, whilst providing an enormous cast of well drawn characters to populate the world; it was a tour-de-force for the imagination, if a little lacking in focus. The City of Ice works hard to pare things back to a manageable level, and it succeeds – at least most of the time.

There continue to be a multitude of point-of-view characters. Several of the family Kressind are only available for key scenes, but others have an ongoing role in the narrative. There’s the heiress, determined to provide for those working in her mills, coming slowly around to unionisation as a binder for being humanitarian. There’s the speaker-to-the-dead, investigating why the recently deceased are stronger and more determined to hang around and make trouble for their descendants. Then there’s the shipwright, the man who built a craft of iron which is able to ross polar oceans, toward a purported hidden city. These  are the Kressind siblings with the clearest roles; it’s interesting to see the Speaker wrestle with his conscience, a man determined to do the right thing – though perhaps not at any cost. He’s tenacious, determined to think things through – but has a willingness to compromise growing from the pressures on his character which is interesting to watch. By contrast, there’s the efforts by his sister to act as a focal point for labour rights. Here is someone insecure in their own heritage, but determined to forge onward, to take an aggressive role and lock down what they see as the right thing to do – via direct action and politivs, when required.

Both feel overshadowed by the engineer, the Kressind who created the impossible – a self propelled craft powered by magic, driving through the arctic seas in search of a lost city. There’s a certain idealism, and an Indiana-Jones quality to his ideals, which makes these sections especially piquant.
The Kressinds are joined by a large supporting cast, from the seemingly friendly but potentially lethal fae-esque creatures (one asks their putative master not to release them, because then the fae will be free to murder them), through mages, whose strength is based on their ability to shape reality to fit their perceptions, to the alien Morfaan, a seemingly advanced species, the remnants of whom are, at the very least, damaged, and may not be as benevolent as they appear.
The result of which is, there’s a lot of fabulous character building on display here. It’s a diverse, complex cast, and the ties between friends and relatives are believably done, and just as fraught as you might expect.

The world is at least as broad as it was from the first book; but there’s a tighter focus here – the most memorable environs are those of the tundra surrounding the titular City of Ice. Its to McKinley’s credit that she can bring us a thriving urban cityscape, an urban metropolis brought together by expectation, a thronging mass of humanity, each individual part of a whole – and also the stark white of a polar region, populated by a small band of explorers, on the hard edge between life and slow starvation; both are plausible, and both feel real – the muttering heat of a city before the arrival of an expected sign, the hard deals and cut-throat politics – and the stark simplicity of the ice, driving towards and unknowable, seemingly impossible goal – in all cases, this is a world which lives and breathes, I’d love to see more of it, but as with the previous book in the series, I’m sure more will become available as the story continues.

The plot is, at least seemingly, more focused than the first book. We’re following an expedition toward a polar region on their quest, and tracking the Kressinds as they meddle in the politics of their region. Gradually, the feeling that there is more at stake becomes more concrete – though as always with the acquisition of knowledge, there’s a price to pay. This is a book with significant emotional depth, which is unafraid to explore both joy and sorrow, in the broader and the micro states – and the consequences that both can wreak on families.  There’s some interesting revelations here, chasing up hints left in the first book – and some explosive and cleverly defined magic as well. There’s duels, which I admit I sat through with heart in mouth – and compromises, and alliances and stark betrayals.

In the end, this is an excellent sequel, ne which delivers on the promise of its predecessor. It may lose some mystique by beginning to explain some of the mysteries left by the previous volume, but it’s a tighter and better crafted volume overall – and a fascinating addition to the series. You’d need to read the first volume to really keep track of what’s going on – but having done so, this second volume gives you access to rich characters, in a vivid and convincing world – and I, for one, want to know where they go next.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Week Off - Holidays

Greetings, valued readers!

I've been in at the doctor's this week, having taken a small amount out of a finger - so I'm taking the week off. I promise to be back next week, with some hopefully interesting reviews.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Red Knight - Miles Cameron

The Red Knight is Miles Cameron's debut novel, but you really couldn't tell from the quality of the work. In a sentence, it's a bloody, gritty, emotionally wrenching, clever piece of writing. It promises a fantasy world with trappings of historical accuracy, and it delivers. It promises violent,, fast paced, realistic battles - and it delivers. It promises characters you'll care about, with thoughts, feelings and motivations that make sense, and make them real - and it delivers. It promises dialogue that is snappy, smart, and spoken like real people - and it delivers. It promises the potential Next Big Thing in fantasy - and it delivers.

There are comparisons to be made between Miles Cameron and the likes of Joe Abercrombie and George R.R. Martin; the style of work, at least, is similar - characters in a hard, brutal world have been shaped by that world into individuals who are, let us say not very nice, but do make compelling protagonists. Cameron's world is one reminiscent of late medieval Europe - with bands of roving mercenary knights selling their services in conflict to the highest bidder, and with nations always poised on the verge of external or internal conflict. But against this familiar historical backdrop, Cameron gives us an external focus - "The Wild" - an area of liquidity and change, where what is and is not real becomes more fluid, where wonders and monsters are born, and regard the lands populated by humanity as their own.

The setting is interesting, and obviously well researched, and drawn with a fluid brush that moves between the broad strokes of political organisations and geography, down to the fine detail of individual households with equal clarity. The book is worth reading for the world alone. Fortunately, however, the rest of the text is equally solid.

The cast of characters is many and varied, and more than a few of them are deeply unpleasant people. Ironically, the forces of `The Wild', which stands in opposition to humanity, are often portrayed more sympathetically than the protagonists and the forces that aid and abet them. I'm fairly sure this is intentional. The protagonists are (largely ) an unruly and unpleasant bunch of mercenaries, following a mysterious leader, in search of the greatest amount of profit. Many of the supporting characters are more names and a set of traits than anything else, but others have solid motivational moments, and are developed, if not into three dimensions, then at least two and a half. The `Point of view' characters take this a step farther, and give us solid motivations, logic, raw emotions - explanations for actions which are internally consistent, plausibly done, and often surprising. After a while, the characters seem to step off the page and become people, more than marks on a page.

The plot, the events that these characters find themselves in, is a little less convincing than the world and the characters - but it is utterly relentless, action packed, and almost forces the reader to turn every page, in need of finding out what happens next; if, for example, Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series is the fantasy genre's "Great Expectations", then this is fantasy's "Die Hard" - action, adventure, the odd brutal murder, and a plot that seems a little hackneyed, but is so much fun to read that you really don't care.

Overall, this is a book with a beautifully drawn, well realised world, populated by believable (and often believably awful) characters, with a page turning plot that will leave you not wanting to put the book down, and once you do, wanting more. It's a doorstop of a novel, but every bit of it is very, very good indeed.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Cetaganda - Lois McMaster Bujold

Let’s talk about Cetaganda. It’s the name of a sprawling, multi-system empire of demi-humans in Lois McMaster Bujold’s ‘Vorkosigan’ saga. It’s also, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the name of one of the books in the saga, which deals mostly with Miles and his interactions with the Cetagandans.

The setting is, for the most part, Cetaganda itself – the core world of the Cetagandan Empire. After the claustrophobic stations of The VorGame, and the frontier-medieval blend of Cordelia’s Honor, Cetaganda brings us something else again. It’s a garden world, a space filled with what the inhabitants think of as high culture, the pinnacle of their civilisation. The Cetagandans are, of course, a bit odd. They have what appears to be a reasonably affluent, if heavily controlled society, initially ruled over by the Ghem, the soldier-caste. Their fleets turned up in The Vor Game, and the Ghem on display here are focused, duty oriented, and highly competent. The Ghem act as the hands of the Haut, a sub-group acting as overseers of the Ghem. The haut handle the cultural and social niceties of the Empire – producing art, drama, horticulture and so on. But they also dabble in genetics. The Empire is, essentially, a giant petri dish for the human experiment – seeing what works and what does not, what may be a useful survival trait, what may need to be cut out – but exercised across a huge social space, with a huge population. The Haut are, at the very least, somewhat sharper than they appear.

Cetaganda is a melting pot of sorts – and one with more than its fair share of scheming. Both the reader and the characters can be dazzled by the sophistication on display – which finds perfection in both social occasions and assassination attempts – but there’s internal struggles here too. If not as physically claustrophobic as the stations of The Vor Game, Cetaganda is a world bounded by social strictures, where a wrong move can end extremely badly, and where it’s a reasonable presumption that the game is rigged before you start. Still, Bujold is showing us highly cultured, in several senses, society, one carefully and cautiously controlled – without the energy of Barrayar, but with more calculation applied instead. It’s an amazingly beautiful, potentially poisonous place, and the mixture of delight and venom seeps off the page.

The characters – well, the focus here is on the central duo of Miles and his dutiful, womanising, ever-so-slightly reigned cousin Ivan. Ivan serves as Miles’s foil and body-man throughout – he’s perhaps more staid than Miles, and certainly more lazy. There’s a sense of intelligence kept under wraps there, which we may see more of in later texts, but Ivan is definitely smarter than he looks. Of course that wouldn’t be too tricky. Still, here he tends to fetch and carry for Miles, point out moments when his cousin is about to go entirely off the rails and, occasionally, suffer the consequences of some plot or other backfiring. I’m a big fan of Ivan here – the everyman, the avatar of the reader, pulled along in the wake of the small whirlwind of focus that is Miles Vorkosigan. He does a wonderful line in put-upon desperation which is rather charming, and has a clear desire to just do things in straightforward ways, to cut through Gordian knots so that he can get back to the bar.

Miles – well, Miles is the same and different here. When last we saw him, he was preventing intergalactic wars. Here he’s been sent on an ostensibly harmless diplomatic mission; but sent as a representative of Barrayar. This is a tidier, more restrained Miles – a man holding himself within the bounds of duty even more tightly than when he’s running fleets and masquerading as ‘Admiral Naismith’. His word is his bond, his honour is sacrosanct, and when trouble falls into his lap, he gratefully seizes it with both hands, shakes it, and informs Ivan that no, they won’t be going to the bar. I wouldn’t say he’s grown up – the man is still a dynamo, still keen to live up to the reputations of his parents and the older family generations. This is a Miles determined to make something of himself, but still not entirely sure who he is, or exactly what it is that he wants himself to be – apart from “something”.

The plot is a lot of fun. There’s certainly fewer space battles on show than previous instalments. It feels like a detective mystery wrapped inside a sci-fi setting, with the occasional tense moment sending chills up your spine. Miles is on fine form as an investigator, traipsing through red herrings, obfuscatory officials and the occasional bout of violence. There’s a lot of pin-sharp dialogue here, lots of musings on why people do what they do, and discussions of motivations, crosses, double crosses – and the occasional revelatory moment when everything becomes clear, everything makes sense, and the narrative delivers.

Is it a good book? I’d say so. There’s a slower, tension ratcheting pace for the start, and by the end you’re rocketing along with Miles, waiting, if nothing else, to find out what happens next. It’s a charming, clever book, with a hidden edge to it, and some very clever ideas. SO yes, this one’s worth a look.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Pyre - David Hair

The Pyre is the first in the "The Return Of Ravana" fantasy series by David Hair. It follows a group of modern Indian teenagers as they grapple with increasing occurrences of seemingly supernatural events – and looks at some of the causes of those events, centuries in the past.

The setting is provided in two narratively distinct segments. There are chapters set in a town in modern-day India, and those alternate with others, set in the same geography, but 1300 years earlier.  The modern setting is clear, a thriving, energetic place, filled with a background noise of commerce and observances of faith – a tangle of the traditional and the encroaching new – perhaps symbolic of the transition that the nation is going through. There’s iconic environmental flashes – when our trio of young protagonists sit on a roof, drinking coke under the sun, a chase scene through the thronging marketplace, moments of contemplation in temples, and in isolated caves.
This rather optimistic vision works as a clever contrast to the setting of the chapters occurring in the past. There we have a sense of darkness, of claustrophobia. There’s an atmosphere of decline, and a seeping sense of fear trickling through the lines on the page. Where the modern world is an expansive, enthusiastic one, here, people are closing their doors on each other, afraid to speak up or, in some cases, speak at all. At the same time, this past is a rich one, with a sense of the mystic, a baroque feel, and a sense of the need to struggle, to survive.  The author has built a fusion of two times and places, and in their contrasts they build upon each other, and both are synthesised into locales which felt plausible and real.

The characters – well, there’s a certain parity here, a trio of teenagers in the modern world, sat in parallel with what feel like older versions of themselves, in the past. In the ‘modern’ narrative, we spend our time with two boy and a young woman; of the former, one is somewhat bookish, an intellectual, not afraid of an argument, but perhaps not one able to finish it when it becomes physical. He conflicts with the other boy in some ways – a physically stronger, more impulsive type, with a certain level of disdain for those intellectual pursuits. Both are united in their affection for the third member of their triad, a somewhat untraditional young lady, one prepared to stand up, speak her mind ad – in some cases – tell her two associates that they’re being idiots. Each comes with their own baggage – one boy having just returned from England, trying to fit in. The other has family issues, and is trying to define himself around them as he moves into adulthood. The girl struggles with discrimination and self actualisation – in trying to become who she wants to be, and not, perhaps, what society expects.

They’re sympathetic, well drawn characters. Some of their woes feel a bit dramatic and manufactured – but others are spot on. The scenes of troubled family interactions in particular are quietly powerful, and made compelling reading.

The older characters in the ‘past’ sections have broad similarities to their matches in the modern era. There’s the captain of the palace guard –a man who acts at the behest of more unpleasant characters than himself, and struggles with complicity. There’s a poet, a man prepared to take a moral stand in a moment of strength, or toss it away in a moment of weakness. And there’s a bride, a warrior woman with one hand on the bow, and the other on a knife at her belt. The poet is ineffectual, seemingly defined by a romance that sits in his soul, at odds with the environment he survives in. The bride is a powerful force, a woman determined to survive, to take what actions she must in order to do so – a fierce and moral creature. Perhaps the keenest felt is the guard captain, a man torn by the needs of his position, and bonds of loyalty – and his own sense of personal honour, morality, and sense of what is right. Theirs is a triad perhaps more tormented, potentially more tragic than their younger selves – but one just as honest, and with bonds tied just as tightly.

The plot – well, I shan’t spoil it. Suffice to say that there’s magic here that spans eras. There’s discussion of past lives, of the nature of reincarnation. There’s chases and the occasional bit of gunfire. There’s swordfights and the plots of evil kings. There’s quiet family drama, with an emotional punch – and there’s the rise of friendships and the falls of betrayal. In the end, it’s a fast-paced adventure, and one with a clever and convincing mythology – worth a go!